TW: postpartum depression
2 am used to be the time of day that you and your friends drunkenly stumbled from the bars, propelled forward by the joy of drinking too many flights of IPA’s with eyes squinted tight from laughing too much. Surrounded by friends who had the same level of despondency as you did, the ales brightened your dispositions and gave you hope that 6 am wouldn’t feel too brutal. But now, you wake with a startle because you feel the presence of an angered spirit or your toddler, you can’t seem to tell anymore, they are one and the same. They never place their chubby fingers still laced with sticky remnants of ketchup on your arm and gently nudge you from your slumber. No, they linger quietly, mouth breathing in the edges of the shadows until you gasp loudly in a panic- “What?! What is it?! Are you okay? Did you have a bad dream?!”
Your own parents said, “You’ll understand one day when you have to get up in the middle of the night and change the wet sheets.”
The clock with its red LED lights blaring in your retinas reminds you that this ungodly hour is when your day starts. As the parent that the older child always wakes in the middle of the night, they come to you for the monsters that lurk under the bed waiting to grab them by the backs of their ankles, and for the shadows that cast across their rooms in a way that causes their breath to catch tight in their throats. You don’t have the energy to explain that real monsters don't hang out under kid's beds. The real monsters come in the form of working jobs that eat away at your soul every single day until they lay you off just days after you and your wife bring a new baby home. A family of three becomes a family of four and the darkness that is 2 am is a reminder that darkness only amplifies the imbalance of your amygdala.
Happiness or Anxiety, which one shall you carry today?
Only your amygdala decides, and either way, it’s a total crapshoot.
“I had an accident. In my bed.”
Your child tries to climb into your bed, the stench of now wet, cold, urine expedites your body from the comforts of the bed you hardly find sleep in. One foot in front of the other, you move your child down the hallway to their room. With your hand placed on the curly tuft of your child's hair, you think about how you need to pick up detangler spray from the local grocer when you go again.
To be so alert at this time of day feels problematic and you worry that your muscle memory might be taking notes and start waking you whether or not you want to at this time every day. You think to yourself, “Maybe I’ll just set the coffee pot to 1:45 am and embrace the suck of the day with a fresh cup of joe.”
Ever since the baby came home with you from the hospital the wakeups at 2 am have increased in frequency. If memory serves you correctly this was part of the warnings from family and friends too.
“Babies eat and wake without rhyme or reason.”
“You won’t ever sleep again.”
“The days are long, but the years are short.”
Older siblings subliminally schedule their own wakeups on the cusp of you falling back to sleep just moments before. Wet sheets are the bane of your existence, and the warning that the days are long comes roaring back to your brain. They are in fact so long when wet sheets are involved. Your low back protests that pulling off soiled bedsheets from a bunk bed underneath glow in the dark stars on the ceiling is a punishment fit for criminals not tired parents like yourself.
Balancing on the thin metal steps of the blue bunk bed you curse the tightness of the waterproof mattress protector. The unyielding elastic snaps back up over the corner you just tried slipping it over. He laughs at the comedy of errors before him as you sweat and mutter shit under your breath over and over again.
“When was the last time I laughed?” you think to yourself. The thought is fleeting and you decide to forgo the mattress protector for a flat sheet draped over the mattress. Your child is old enough to not suffocate if entangled in their bedding, so there’s that.
Like a choreographed dance your hand dips down into the pajama drawer all while you remove the damp top from your child's body undoing the bath you just gave him hours before all of this. Shoving the drawer shut with your foot the light on his Mr. Potato Head Clock gleams 2:48 am. Three books later, and a promise to return with a glass of water you make your way back to bed. Cries of an unsettled newborn wail through the house. The flashing numbers on the coffee pot remind you that your to-do list will never end; Buy detangler spray, program the clock on the coffee pot, and for God’s sake don’t forget to wash the wet sheets.
Out of habit, you turn the knob to your bedroom door with the tiniest twist, your wrists still moan at the fight between you and the mattress protector from earlier. You won’t risk causing more noise to your bungalow with 3 bedrooms and a pass-through kitchen that acts as a funnel of noise to the other end of the house. Worry of making the mortgage payment washes over you and you wonder how much of a hit you'll take if part of your 401K needs to be used.
Shut the door (pardon off the noise.)
Take a breath (your partner says this helps.)
Ask how you can help (being of service supposedly makes you feel better about yourself.)
You wanted these kids (in theory.)
“Here, hand her to me. I’ll feed her. You go back to sleep.”
The amount of time it’ll take to feed your baby between the burpings over your shoulder, you’ve added another hour to the clock. Unpredictable at best, this is your life now and you’re barely hanging on. But baby, oh baby does your heart turn into a puree of yams and yellow carrots, soft enough for a baby to swallow when she looks up at you. It’s the one time of day your amygdala tips over into happiness if only momentarily. It’s moments like these that makes 6 am less brutal. It’s silly of you to think that you can program in a baby smile between Sesame Street and a bowl of oatmeal every time you need a shot glass of Oxytocin. The last call was at 6 am.
Friends ask how it’s going, and they’ll chuckle when they say, “No way you’re sleeping, look at those bags under your eyes.”
They mean well. Don’t forget that they stood beside you on your wedding day and witnessed your vows and exchanges of “through sickness and health.” They've proven they want the best for you and they also like a good joke. It's probably not a good time to tell them you lost your job. The vision of pity on their faces isn't a weight you'd like to carry right now. Don’t forget that they mean well when they invite you away for 3 days at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. You think of the SPF you’d have to apply to your pale skin that hasn’t seen the sun in days and feel the burn of missing out on a life outside of parenthood. You’d rather let the day be longer somewhere else where you aren’t required to make snack plates and wipe dirty butts.
It’s warm out which means you’ll head to the backyard of your bungalow and apply sunblock to your son’s shoulders and nose. Sun exposure is something you worry about all the time now, especially between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. Before kids the only acronym you had memorized was B.Y.O.B, but now it’s UVA, UVB, AAPA- and dammit what time is it socially acceptable to have a drink? A drink would make this all a little better. Just a sip or two to take away the shakes you have from surviving on adrenaline and lack of sleep. But you know one sip might lead to three or four and four leads to fights with your wife who barrages you with, “Are you ok? Do you think you’re depressed?”
It’s dinner time now and the concerned look drawn on her face is so obvious, you shout irritably, "What?!" Be careful, she might catch on.
Tell her that you’re just fine because men always are, in truth, you will have to be, it’s what is expected. She’ll stand in the kitchen scraping the dinner dishes clean, eyeing you she’ll say, “You know you can tell me right? If you’re feeling sad.” The bags under her eyes soften, begging you to admit defeat when all you want to admit is that you’d do anything to make the day end. Tomorrow will be better, you think.
Think of your wife as the barometer for your success emotionally and successfully. If she’s worried maybe you should be too. When she was pregnant you showed up by going to all of the prenatal appointments listened to the doctor dutifully when they listed the postpartum depression signs.
“You’ll need to keep a close eye on her, postpartum can be unforgiving on women. Sometimes men too.”
Scoff, because this doctor is basically a stranger and what does he know of your mental resilience? Once in college, you stayed awake for 24 hours straight all in the name of fraternal brotherhood, maybe there was alcohol involved you can't remember. You nod and make a mental note, adding to the list; Sadness, irritability, substance abuse, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy. Science argues that it should be her, what with the hormones and the lactating.
Evolutionary Biology has a funny way of making sure you stick around as a father to bond with your new baby. The Biologists say that men can fall into paternal postpartum depression as a way to make you stay put. Biology is making sure you don't abandon your family, but given the choice you're not so sure if you could stay on your own merit without it.
You kick yourself because of course there had been warnings all along, from your parents and from your friends who carried bags under their eyes like weighted carry-ons. There is no putting these bags in the overhead compartment, they must be checked in and weighed. The scale on which they sit screams in bright red that you must pay extra, for the sleepless nights and for the ballet slippers with the pink satiny ribbons and the multi-colored snack crackers dyed with vegetable extracts. The warnings you ignored have astronomical costs that cannot be written off on the year-end taxes, there is no earned income credit on starting your day at 2am.
It’s nearly midnight now, you're too tired to reduce your gum disease with an electric toothbrush and opt instead for your bed next to your wife. You roll over thinking you’ll confess how deeply sad you are. How you’ll be the big spoon to your wife’s little spoon and you’ll say instead something sweet like, “I’m so glad we have this life. That we have these kids. That we have each other.” These sentiments will assure your wife that you are fine, or that you will be. The wet spot of leaked milk on the sheets will stop you mid-roll. It’s been a long day you think, but that won’t stop you from getting up to put the wet sheets from your child’s room in the wash. You can mark '
wash the wet sheets,' off the list now.